Conversation and the civic economy


In ‘Creative Placemaking’, Professor Ann Markusen reviews a series of projects across America that have emerged in the landscapes of post industrial decline. Here were places that make the cars of the modern world. No more. Urban blocks are vacant. Big challenges.

In these places, Markusen and her colleagues discovered projects that used the creative energies of communities to build and scale enterprise. This led her to question what the role of creativity in placemaking is. In doing so, she laid out a definition : ‘the process that happens when partners [public, private, non profit and community] come together to strategically shape cities, towns and neighbourhoods around arts and culture’. She emphasises three dimensions : partnerships, strategic shaping, arts and culture.

Through case studies, the research draws out three key lessons:

•    You need an initiator: Often, this was an individual, usually a creative. This person was prepared to do something, to try something, to connect and collaborate to get things done

•    You need to cleave to distinctiveness and local orientation: In most cases, what worked was not massive investment in physical capital targeting tourism markets, but a building on the creative energies and spaces that already exist. In other words, the offer of these places is a good local example of people doing things together, whatever that is in that place.

•    You need partnerships: The biggest successes in any economy, in any city, are a product of the effort of many: people solving problems through collaboration on the ground, and collaboration with the institutions that govern places. Good partnership requires one key skill: people engaging with each other.

Again, three dimensions are emphasised: partnership, distinctiveness and initiators. This is interesting because Markusen is an economist. What interests her is places that work and why. Her conclusion seems to be that it is all about people collaborating. This happen when people are given the space and permission to so.

The Compendium for the Civic Economy, recently published by Nesta and architecture 00, takes up this theme of people doing things together. The Compendium is a collection of case studies of people doing things with purpose. Enterprises are socially and commercially motivated. They are all collective. They are all based on a shared set of values. These values the authors suggest are the basis of a new civic economy. Growing this economy is possible, and plausible, based on:

•    Recognising the protagonists: supporting civic entrepreneurs
•    Inviting citizen co-production: participation beyond consultation:
•    Diversifying funding streams: financial co-investment:
•    Recognising latent opportunities: re-using existing assets:
•    Being creative about the conditions that support physical and social change in our places
•    Frameworks for emergence: an open-ended approach to managing change
•    Recognising where value lies: re-defining the metrics of change

Speirs Locks in Glasgow is based on the north side of the city. It is a neighbourhood both connected and separated from the wider city context. However, here the seeds of the civic economy are being planted. Communities of interest, creative entrepreneurship and collaboration are generating new businesses, new purpose and new identity.

This process of organic change is slower, more incremental that old models. However, exciting it is. Compelling it is. Sustainable it could be, if, people participate in the story of the place that is emerging. That requires new initiators, and new partnerships. Building these is about conversations. If Markusen, and the civic economy are right, conversation is the new tool for effective and creative placemaking.


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